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Hart, Van Horne debate 'soft money'

Wednesday, September 20, 2000

By Dennis B. Roddy, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Congressional candidates Melissa Hart, R-Bradford Woods, and Terry Van Horne, D-Westmoreland, spent a second day debating the arrival of "soft money," this time zeroing in on advertising in the race for the 4th Congressional District.

Hart, the target of an estimated $250,000 television campaign by the Pennsylvania Democratic Committee, accused Van Horne of either backing away from his opposition to soft money or showing himself incapable of influencing officials in his own party.

The pair squared off at the very end of an hour-long joint appearance before the Northern Allegheny Chamber of Commerce in Wexford yesterday.

At a news conference the day before, Hart said the spots being aired in the district misrepresented her position on education and urged Van Horne to abandon such advertising help from unidentified donors whose contributions are labeled soft money. Soft-money contributions go to political parties or groups rather than directly to the candidates' campaigns and are not subject to the same limits.

Hart called the ads "dishonest" and challenged Van Horne to ask party leaders to pull them, saying both House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt and U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is underwriting the ads, had visited the district on Van Horne's behalf.

"You brought John McCain in to campaign with you, but you haven't supported his campaign reform bill," Van Horne replied.

Hart was helped earlier this summer by Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who won national attention by challenging Texas Gov. George W. Bush for the GOP nomination. McCain is co-sponsor of the McCain-Feingold campaign reform bill, which Hart has said she does not support in its current form.

The controversial 30-second spots accuse Hart of voting against smaller classrooms and against tighter school security and aver that she favors eliminating the federal Department of Education.

Hart voted against two amendments tacked onto other bills that were sent on to the state Senate and she said her opposition to the amendments was based on concern that their inclusion would require a House concurrence vote, thus delaying their passage.

Hart said yesterday she does not favor eliminating the Department of Education, although she had earlier suggested she has "an open mind" on the matter and believes the department is wasting money that could be directed to local districts.

Van Horne has defended himself by saying the ads are sponsored by a third party and that he had no advance knowledge of them.

Under federal campaign finance laws, soft-money campaigns are unrelated "advocacy" campaigns and cannot be coordinated with candidates.

"It's not my ad. It's the Democratic Party's. It's illegal for me to know about it. I haven't seen it," Van Horne said after the meeting.

Hart said Van Horne should ask the party to withdraw the ad, and held out the possibility that the Republicans could enter the dispute with their own soft-money advertising.



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